Two Steps Backward for the Sierra Club

By Hartmann, Betsy | The Progressive, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Two Steps Backward for the Sierra Club


Hartmann, Betsy, The Progressive


Conservative population control and anti-immigrant forces are once again threatening to take over the Sierra Club. A year and a half ago, this issue roiled the membership, which voted overwhelmingly to oppose harsh immigration and population policies and instead to endorse a progressive approach toward population issues, which includes championing the empowerment of women, supporting reproductive health services, and addressing the root economic and political causes of migration. But now, under pressure, the board of the Sierra Club is starting to retreat from this stance.

On September 26, it changed Sierra Club policy from one favoring population stabilization to one that advocates "reductions in the population of the United States and the world." What may seem like a mere change in language has major implications for the reputation of the Sierra Club and its relationship to immigrants, communities of color, and women's groups in the United States and overseas.

Population stabilization, a term used by most U.S. environmental organizations, implies that declining population growth rates will take place over time, a phenomenon now occurring more rapidly than anticipated in most countries of the world. The world's annual population growth rate is now at 1.33 percent a year, down from a peak of more than 2 percent in 1965-1970 and the rate of 1.46 percent in 1990-1995. The U.N. estimates that world population will reach around nine billion in 2050, at which point it will start to level off as most families achieve "replacement-level fertility"--in other words, a two-child norm. This decline in population growth rates results from a variety of factors, including the shift from rural to urban livelihoods, the spread of education, and women's employment outside the home.

The Sierra Club's new call for population "reductions," however, endorses negative population growth, one that's below replacement-level fertility. How does the Sierra Club hope to achieve this, given that, most demographers agree that, barring disaster, three billion more people will be added to the planet's population in the next fifty years?

To reduce the population nationally would require a halt to immigration. This potentially places the Sierra Club in league with Pat Buchanan at his most reactionary.

To reduce the global population would require either draconian one-child family policies and/or a massive rise in death rates--not the kinds of population policies the Sierra Club is on record as endorsing.

Unfortunately, rising death rates are already a reality in many African countries hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N. program UNAIDS, estimates that half of all newborn babies in Africa now carry the HIV virus. In the twenty-nine most severely affected countries, life expectancy has decreased to forty-seven years and population growth rates are dropping. So far, the United Nations says, absolute population size is not likely to decline in Africa as a result of AIDS, but that scenario cannot be ruled out.

Given the severity of the AIDS crisis and the coercive means required to achieve negative population growth, advocating population reductions is ethically problematic, to say the least.

Why, then, is the Sierra Club willing to risk alienating health and human rights activists?

The answer lies in the club's internal controversy over immigration. In April 1998, Sierra Club members voted on two ballot initiatives. Alternative A, put forward by anti-immigration forces, would have put the club on record as supporting a "reduction of net immigration" as a component of a "comprehensive population policy for the United States."

Alternative B, supported by the club's staff, board of directors, and many grassroots volunteers, reaffirmed the club's neutral policy on immigration and adopted a women's empowerment/human rights approach toward population and migration issues. …

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